You can’t rush this. Nuh uh. That’s why you get up at four in the morning even if you don’t have to be at work until nine because you never know when you might run into one of your old boyfriends or worse, one of those old skanky metiches from high school like that cha-cha girl Sonya. So take your time. Ignore your parents, especially your mother who bangs on the door like she’s gonna crash through it.
Apura nada. Who knows? Today may be the day Principal Díaz will actually ask you out. Take it easy with the foundation and rub it all the way down to your neck. You want to make sure everybody believes the makeup is your natural skin color.
This is the first Monday of the month so you break out the Prescriptives Virtual Youth Foundation in “Smooth Honey.” One shake and a little brown slug pushes through the little hole, goes right on your sponge wedge—fresh squeezed and better than that first morning cigarette. And it really blends into your skin. No more pink eraser look. At least nowadays the girls at the counter don’t have to pretend that oh yes, you’ll glow just like a pink peach cover girl once you buy this 20-dollar jar of beauty sauce.
Of course you use a sponge wedge, not those little cotton balls Mama used. The beige foundation used to drip over them instead of staying on long enough to be wiped over her face. But once she wiped it on, it stayed on, even when it melted down to her neck. Tía Tonia would bring her samples from The Broadway where she worked the Chanel counter and would get un puño de free samples or “promotions,” as she used to call them.
Tía was the rich one in your family. She wore pretty black blouses with the two white backward Cs stitched on them. Her skin always looked smooth like condensed milk, not pink and hard like Mama’s. And she wore makeup all the time, not just at home or at parties. And her hands were nice and smooth with long nails covered in pearly reds, browns or purples. But her eyes. If she got too close, she’d scare you. She’d line her eyes like Elizabeth Taylor’s “Cleopatra” and then draw her eyebrows real high and thin. But Mama and Daddy thought she looked like an artista, a real movie star. Daddy liked Tía Tonia a lot and would always hug or hold her hand and ask Mama why she didn’t look “arreglada” like Tía did. Mama would just laugh.
“Una muñeca,” Daddy would say looking at Tía up and down like his head was broken.
Once you spread the foundation all evenly, put on the powder. Dust it with a big, clean soft brush. Don’t use those cheap velour powder puffs like Mama. After a couple of weeks, they always got sticky thick with dirt, oil and old powder. She always threw them away because they were feos and asquerosos. But ever since Lancôme girl told you how a brush can “evenly distribute” the powder across the pores and actually make the pressed powder in the compact last longer than if you used puffs, you buy that five-piece set with the ebony handles for one hundred dollars. And you charge it because it’s not pay day yet and even if it was, you still couldn’t afford it since your job as registrar at Fourth Street Elementary School doesn’t pay jack shit. Still, it’s a great deal since you usually pay about forty dollars for the powder anyway but now it’ll last you about six months instead of three. It’s like a mini-sacrifice but Principal Diaz is worth every cent, every grain of powder, and every hair on that brush. Not like Daddy. Not like Isaac.
One day, while you watched Mama get ready for Tía’s party, Daddy walked in, picked up one of those disgusting powder puffs from the little trash can near the toilet.
“Mira,” he said pushing it up to your face. “Te pareces como esta cochinada.”
You smelled the beer and you knew he’d been drinking in the garage since morning.
“Mira, mira,” he said holding your chin hard, poking your pimples and your eyebrows that looked exactly like your Nana’s. You didn’t say anything. You just bit your cheek real hard so you wouldn’t cry.
“No seas grosero Alejandro,” Mama said but Daddy kept poking you until Mama said she’d get you to “fix” yourself up.
Next you line your eyes with good eyeliner. What will it be today? Copper Penny by Estēe Lauder or Black Vellura by Borghese? You decide on Copper Penny since it’s more of a daytime color than the Vellura. You’ll save that one for clubbing with your comadres.
You’re careful to follow the lash line below the eye so you don’t poke yourself like you did so many times before you got the hang of it. Then you pencil the top lid very slowly, pressing a little harder so there aren’t any spaces; you want smooth, solid lines. Mama always used liquid eyeliner. When you started, you used that “Big Red” pencil liner from Maybelline but it got so hard after you first used it, you had to melt it with a match in the girls’ bathroom to put it on before class started.
You bought that eyeliner at Thrifty’s half a mile from your house. You took a bus there instead of walking to the Kmart on the corner because the guy you had a crush on since junior high was a Jehovah and sold Atalaya magazines in front of Thrifty’s with his father every Saturday. Isaac and his father would be dressed in suits and ties and they’d stand right near the doors, Atalayas pressed to their chests. You’d walk by and say “hi” to him. The first time Isaac didn’t look at you. But you knew he was just embarrassed. His father always embarrassed him. One time he made Isaac sit on a kitchen chair in his front yard and practice the accordion. Every kid on the block stopped playing, watching TV, whatever they were doing, and stood right in front of the yard yelling awful things like “You look like a fag Isaac.” “Sounds like my grandma’s records.”
Then this one kid, Paul, a real vago, threw his football at Isaac’s face. Isaac dropped the accordion and ran to the door. But it was locked. He kept banging on it but his parents wouldn’t open it. His father shouted something from the window. You couldn’t hear because of all the kids shouting but as soon as he yelled it, Isaac sat back down and started practicing again. Some of the other kids started throwing rocks but Isaac just kept playing. You ran back into the house, crying like his father had made you sit in the front yard with him. First thing you did was lock the bathroom door and pull out one of the drawers. You looked for the Borghese compact with the little crest. When you found it, you powdered every inch of your face. Pat, pat, pat. You made sure you covered every purple pimple on your face with the stuff. Pat, pat, pat. You felt a little better and left the makeup on until Isaac’s parents let him in the house.
Don’t overdo the eye shadow. Do it light and “playful” like the lady at the counter told you. You don’t want to scare the kids at school. And you don’t want Principal Díaz to think you’re desperate like that piruja Sonya who flirts with any man who’ll look at her boobs. She still piles on the cheap makeup an inch thick and wears those V-neck blouses like she did in high school. She still has the biggest boobs you ever saw.
The last time you saw Sonya, it was during Back-To-School registration. You were helping parents out with registering their kindergartners when she walked in. The moment you saw that wild curly hair and those boobs, you knew it was her. But you couldn’t believe she had a kid with her. She always used to say she never wanted any mocosos to get in the way of her life. But there she was, standing in line with all the other parents, registering this little girl who looked just like a mini-Sonya.
“Hi Sonya,” you said.
Sonya looked at you like she didn’t know you. She just nodded her head and started filling out the form you pushed in front of her. You saw the circles under her eyes even if she did try to hide them with concealer. You use concealer too but the good kind: Anti Cernes Quick Cover by Chanel. It’s so good you don’t even know how to say the first two words.
You remembered the lunch periods in high school when she used to sit with all her cheerleader friends and pull out all those lipstick tubes from her imitation Gucci bag. Sonya’s favorite was the gold one with silver, swirly lines. Estēe Lauder of course.
“Hey, check out this color,” she’d say, puckering her lips.
“You look like Nastassia ‘Kinky,’” one of the other cheerleaders would say.
Then they’d all laugh like a bunch of payasas.
She didn’t know it, but sometimes you’d watch her from a bathroom stall to see what color she would put on for the next period. One time she caught you.
“What are you doing you little perve?” she said. “What are you staring at?”
You came out all cool, pretending like you were just there to piss and leave.
“I’ll kick your ass next time you do that,” she said as you walked out the door.
You did it again, but not until after she got pregnant. By then, she would just splash her face with water, run her hands through her curly hair and run out to class.
That time you registered her kid, Sonya wore makeup but it was that corriente stuff, like Cornsilk or Almay. Cheap cosmetics you could buy at any supermarket. You could tell she didn’t rub the foundation around her neck like she should have to make it look natural. And her face looked like it was missing something. You couldn’t figure it out until she kissed her little girl. Pues, she wasn’t wearing any lipstick! It was funny, because Mama always used to point to her when she walked to school in front of your house and say, “Esa si sabe como pintarse.”
And when she walked back home from cheerleading practice, Daddy would be standing out there watering the lawn, watching her walk by. His head would swivel almost all the way around his neck. He wouldn’t say it out loud, but you could see his lips say “Que muñeca.”
But Isaac, he was the one who really showed you how a girl with good makeup could get whatever she wanted. And whatever she didn’t want. By your senior year, he was saying “hi” to you. He even kissed you a couple of times but he never walked you home or took you out to dances. He took Sonya. That year, Sonya got Isaac and his baby.
That was five years ago. Ni modo. There was a reason you were on the other side of the counter and she wasn’t. You wanted to ask her if she married Isaac. Or if he left her for another, prettier woman who could make herself up better. Would Isaac have loved you instead? You didn’t have the big boobs, but you wouldn’t have cheated on him like Sonya did with the D.J. at the Spring Fling dance. Deep down, you hoped he had found out. You hoped he punched Sonya like Daddy punched Mama when she caught him kissing Tía Tonia in their bedroom.
Then Isaac walked into the office. Just like that. He was carrying a little white fuzzy thing in one hand and a cup of coffee. When he got closer to Sonya’s little girl, he crouched down. You could only see his thick black hair from the counter but you knew he looked the same.
“You forgot your kitty sweetie,” he said. You could feel him smiling. The little girl smiled too and grabbed her kitty and his face. He kissed her. Just like that. Then he got up and kissed Sonya. She smiled like he’d given her a stuffed kitten too.
After putting on some blush—Clarin’s “Mystique”—you can finally put on the lipstick. Last week you wore the Borghese’s “Burnt Sugar,” which was a little too shimmery, a little too piruja. How about something a little sensuous, yet delicate today? Dr. Diaz still hasn’t really noticed you but he checked out Sonya during registration. Just like Daddy, his head was going up and down, up and down. How about Clinique’s “Sugared Toffee”? Put on the Underwear for Lips lip primer first. When Dr. Diaz finally sees the quality makeup you use, he’ll forget about Sonya and her powder puff face.
You remember how Isaac, before he dumped you and started going around with Sonya, told you how pretty you looked with lipstick (Avon’s Creamy Caramel?). How it made your lips look sexier and how you kept hoping he’d notice and maybe kiss you again because your mother said, “El maquillaje es magia.” And she should know because she and Daddy stayed married for 40 years. You never saw her without makeup, ever. You know she slept with it on because when you made the beds in the morning, you found lipstick smeared on her pillow. It’s not like she worked in an office or anything. Mama made springs in this hot little factory way out in Long Beach. Every day, especially in the summer, her eye shadow, eyeliner and mascara melted like the water colors you painted at school.
Mama kept little sample compacts hidden away in every single drawer of the house. Whenever you looked for a match or a fork, there was always a mini-compact clattering around the drawer like some old piece of candy. All over the house, you’d find little green, blue, and black compacts with gold lettering. Her favorite was the Borghese because it had this little silver crest.
“A sign of royalty,” she’d say. “Para una princesa italiana.”
Then she’d pat, pat the powder on her face until her skin looked like the rubber on your pink eraser. You couldn’t wear makeup until you were 16 but you stole a compact anyway. Maybe Sonya would finally notice you, invite you over to her special table for lunch.
Washing makeup off is another story. Soap and water won’t cut it if you don’t want eye-shadow and mascara smeared all over your pillowcase. And you know Mama won’t put up with it. And you better not say anything about the lipstick on her pillow.
“No seas tan cochina!” she told you after she caught you using the Neutrogena bar and nothing else. “Un regalo,” she said after putting down the Lancôme Effacil eye make-up remover in front of you.
You wonder if you’ll ever tell her to shove that remover up her ass. Just because you live with her and Daddy, doesn’t mean they can still boss you around. After all, you pay them $300 a month in rent and you never bring any men over to your room, not that there are any men to bring around. Pero que verguenza having to tell a future boyfriend, like maybe Dr. Díaz, that he can’t go over to your place because your parents won’t let you. You can always move out but you’re trying to save up to go back to school and rents are so high in L.A. and what about your monthly trips to the Prescriptives counter, not to mention your stops with the consultants at Chanel, Dior, Borhgese, Clarins, Clinique, Estēe Lauder and Lancôme? No, it’s just not time yet.
Then that scene with Dr. Diaz. When he stopped by your desk, your heart started thumping fast. Yes, this would be the day your relationship started. What would it be, coffee at the Igriega’s Panaderia or a drink at the Red Onion? And he asks you if you can stay late tonight and help with finishing up the registration.
“Of course,” you say, your heart like a big, bloody cut because you get to spend a late night with this man more beautiful than the Christmas promotions of all your favorite cosmetic lines.
“Can you help train someone for me?” he asks, his dark red lips growing larger, swallowing you up into their warm softness.
You nod but all you’re thinking is Baby, I would die for you. Just like that Prince song. And even when he brings in Sonya to train, you could care less because all you know is that you get to spend more time with this man you decided you love as much as those fresh jars of foundation lining the bottom of your bathroom cabinets.
Use one of those round cotton pads, the ones that look like little quilts. They absorb all the dirt and grime from the most cochina faces. Makeup remover can even lighten up the brownest of skin, at least that’s what Tía Tonia with her condensed milk skin told you.
So you rub, and rub but you’re still as brown as those clay bowls Mama uses to serve pozole for Daddy. One night, while taking a break from the training, after you saw Dr. Díaz trying to kiss Sonya in the supply room, you rub the Effacil so hard into your face you leave little red patches on your skin. Through that door crack you could see them rubbing their faces against each other, like they were animals. Who knows how long you stood there? It was like watching a movie. Before you knew it, they were done and Sonya was rubbing her hair down and pulling out her Estēe Lauder lipstick tube from her back pocket.
“Nastassia Kinky,” you whispered.
And they both looked at you through that crack.
“Bitch,” Sonya said.
Dr. Diaz put his arms around her and held her. And you? You went back to your desk pulled out the brand new Chanel compact, looked at your face. You kept looking even after Dr. Díaz and Sonya walked out of the supply room. You didn’t look at him when he called your name. You just nodded when he asked you to lock the door before you left.
And so you rub and rub but your skin’s no lighter, or whiter than it was before. It never will be, no matter how hard you rub, no matter how many times Dad pokes you. No matter what. Punto.
Today, no today you can’t do it. You can’t step into that steaming water. You can’t rummage through your jars. You can’t even pick out some pinche cotton pad. No, today it just doesn’t suena. You just feel like that used up powder puff Daddy shoved into your face that day. You open up your closet. Maybe the jars can work their magia on you just by looking at them. But then you remember that Estēe Lauder lipstick tube bulging through Sonya’s back pocket and all you see is liquid skin sitting there, flaking inside glass.